Snow and ice dripped from thatch eaves, creating slick, muddy tracks in the melt. Rodney’s birlinn docked on the second day of frost break. Thin sheets of ice dances around the hull, squeaking a thin tune over the thunk of wood and slap of rope. Gulls cried in a clear morning, greeting a pale pink sky.
Eoin studied the improvised basket sitting on a dock post above a pile of bags and trunks. A twirtling chirp protested a sudden gust of wind. He breathed a sigh, reassured that Vanora was well enough to respond to her environment. He had rescued her from the mews the evening before Iain brought a fire brigade to the Daleroch estate and burned it to the ground. Seonaid had not protested the bird’s lodging in their byre. Plenty of the dried meats, root veg, and what remained of the peat had already been packed away for sale to the neighbouring crofts to turn one last coin. Comestibles left at the end were either turned out to the refuse pile or carefully stored to be shipped with Fearchar, Seonaid, and Eoin.
The doctor and the handyman had taken the better part of two days to dismantle the makings of the croft home and disposed of what they would not take with them. Trunks were purchased and traded for to pack away clothing, tools of Fearchar’s trades, and Seonaid’s household materials.
Men gathered around the dock in nervous clumps, avoiding and making eye contact with each other while their wives cried and fussed over a woman in their midst.
“You’d think Seonaid took them on,” Fearchar chuckled next to Eoin.
I think a few of them did. The physician recognized more than one face in the slew of dull coloured skirts who had made the trip up to Seonaid’s croft.
“True. I recognize that look her suiters have. I had that look the day she moved shop from upper to lower Glasgow and the same look was on those men’s faces when I carried her off to here. At least they’ll help us get the bags aboard.” Fearchar waved and walked over to talk to Rodney.
“We’ll be sad to see you go, Doc, but you kept Plague from our village. We cannot ask you for more. If it is time for you to move on to your next village, it is time for another town to be safe from Lucifer’s influences.” Matew from the kirk pressed a packet of dried herbs into Eoin’s gloved fingers. “Seonaid let me know of Widow Magaidh’s passing and that you knew of her. I am sorry you were not informed for her burial. She walks along the golden roads. Please find peace with this news as she has found peace with God.”
Eoin clenched his teeth, thankful he did not have to speak with the parish priest only meaning kindness. The Fyskar regretted never being able to make it to the grave and Walk his grandmother’s spirit to the Forest.
“Aye, men, grab a trunk or a bag and I’ll tell you where to set it!” Rodney called for the gathering’s attention. Soon enough, a nook in the hold was filled with the handyman and prostitute’s belongs. Eoin clung to Vanora’s cage while Fearchar took the apothecary chest and duffle to that storage corner. Other packages of goods for trade took up the rest of the hold. Near midday, Eoin and his lovers boarded the ship heading to the mainland.
A week of travel by cart turned them out onto a London road. Storied houses crowded the cobblestone, casting grim shadows on frozen horse muck. Seonaid and Fearchair stared at the buildings and the peasantry dressed so differently from themselves. A number of more well off men openly huffed and sneered at Fearchar until they noticed Eoin. A bubble formed around the little group. Fear of Plague uppermost in people’s minds tended to force distance.
The little group’s shipment had been sent ahead to a storage house on the wharves, save for a couple handbags of clothing and Vanora’s cage.
“You sent a note to your man, where is he?” Fearchar sidled up to Eoin and took Vanora’s cage from him.
Up ahead. There was a coffeehouse below his lodgings and when not acting as a court ambassador, he said he’d not be leaving far. I can assume I’ll see him there.
“Coffeehouse?”Seonaid sounded out the word.
The drink I share with you, the one with the strong taste? There are shop fronts here that sell it alongside tea. It is often watered down and has no aroma to speak of, but if I can buy the beans before they’ve been put to the pan, I can often make a decent roast of it. Eoin led them past a series of tailors and alehouses until they came upon a soot browned building with a simple sign of a cup above it. Eoin pointed up to it like it would explain everything and walked inside, Fearchar and Seonaid close on his heels.
“Niloofar!” A chirp startled them in the gloom that greeted them in the front room of what was a converted house.
All three swung around in search of the voice to find a man in strange costume clambering up from a bench in the corner. Cups and plates rattled as he knocked his knees into the surface.
“Is this your man, Eoin?” Fearchar stepped forward, blocking off his wife and his employer from the oncoming individual. The man’s clothing resembled the common outfit Eoin tended to wear in private, this however in blood red and set off with bright embroidery about the yoke and sleeves.
Salman, good day to you. Eoin pressed a reassuring hand onto Fearchar’s shoulder to stall him from taking off the guard’s head.
Salman bowed low to Eoin before motioning him to the table in the corner. The physician encouraged his travelling party to join him. Setting aside bags under stools and Vanora at Eoin’s feet where no one would kick over her basket, the group received cups of coffee from the mistress of the coffeehouse.
Who are your people, Niloofar? The guard offered to pour a pitcher of cream into Eoin’s cup. The doctor waved off the crock.
My family, Salman. They are part of my clan. Eoin had seen fit in Glasgow to go to the seat and file one last motion in the name of the Fyskar: incorporation of Seonaid and Fearchar into his clan. A fair coin, a flash of his deed, and the document had been whisked off into a pile of other paperwork to disappear into registers.
Brother and sister? An aunt and uncle to Albin and Callum? Salman found Fearchar more amicable for the cream.
In a way, but not by blood. Eoin unclasped his mask and set it aside.
Fearchar and I are husband and wife. Doc is our clan head. Seonaid slipped into the conversation.
Salman scooted back to openly look the woman up and down. You understand Niloofar’s tongue?
I learned for other family. Seonaid offered her cup for Salman to top off with cream. The man raised an eyebrow, flicking it to Fearchar then to Eoin.
She does not know your customs, and her husband will take no offence to you providing her food. Eoin sipped at the bitter brew, finding the well water tone beneath it tinny and brash, overtaking the floral note he hoped for.
Customs? Seonaid set her cup down within Salman’s reach and waited. The man eventually poured in the milk, warily eyeing Fearchar all the while.
A bit of a difference between lands in how a man shows respect to a woman, even more so in deference for a husband about his wife is all. Eoin set his cup aside, displeased with the ruined brew.
“I’m getting that someone thinks something’s insulting about Seonaid?” Fearchar tried to push into the conversation.
“I’m still trying to determine what it is.” Seonaid took back her cup and tested it before drinking the lukewarm down completely.
Do they speak Farsi, Niloofar? Salman set down the empty jar in favour of a smaller jar that held honey.
Seonaid pointed to Eoin’s cup in a roundabout way to ask if he was going to drink the rest of it. Eoin snorted. No. They speak my native tongue and English. The physician handed over his cup.
But they speak your words? She was raised with them? Salman blanched at the flavour he had created.
I can’t believe you lasted with this stuff as long as you did. Eoin wrinkled his nose in shared distaste.
Some of the batches have been decent, but that was when we were bringing in water from the fresh snow. Salman returned the expression.
I don’t speak Farsi. Doc speaks the Norman language with his hands, though, which is different from Gaelic and English. Seonaid smiled, pleased with her acquired second cup.
It is not Farsi? Salman’s eyes rounded in confusion.
No? Henri taught me. He was originally from France. The book he taught me from was from there. Eoin cocked his head.
But what I speak in the court is English, yes? Salman slipped his hands beneath the table to stall a shiver in his digits.
Yes, it is English. Henri taught you how to speak with me easier and how to properly greet royalty. Now, why are you shaking? Eoin motioned for Salman to show him.
Salman grimaced. He set his hands out on the table where Eoin could look them over. The doctor peeled off his gloves. May I?
His guard nodded, chewing on the inside of his cheek. Eoin took the man’s fingers and turned them under the dim candlelight at their table. No spot or discolouration of the nailbeds, but the digits were cold against his skin. “How long has this been going, Salman?” Eoin traced the man’s appendages up to his shoulders before settling on the man’s throat.
“About a month back, I noticed it, Niloofar.” He backed up on the bench when Eoin stood, reaching up to the man’s shirt collar and pulling it away from his neck.
Fear, chest. Eoin demanded, probing an enlarged Adam’s apple. Fearchar dug out the apothecary cabinet and set it on the doctor’s bench while the coffeehouse patrons stared at the interaction.
“What is it, Niloofar?” Salman asked in Farsi.
Goitre. Eoin slipped out a small pouch of powdered seaweed from his packets and riffled through them for one properly marked. Drink this.
What is it? Salman took the tiny packet. Eoin pushed a sachet of more of the same label back into its envelope.
Bladderwrack. It won’t fix goitre immediately, but I’ll see that I have a stash stocked up for our return home. Endure it for now and the shaking should stop. Eoin motioned for Seonaid to ask for the coffeehouse keep if he could have a glass of boiled water by which to give Salman the herb.
An evening spent in the coffeehouse helped Eoin familiarize his companions with each other. With sunset, the coffeehouse changed to providing roasted meats and ales for the dockworks. Fearchar secured the upstairs room next to Sulman’s. The guard had one last week of work to secure minor trade from his kingdom with England, separate from Isfahan.
Eoin collapsed on the floor, more than happy to pull a pair of lambskins over himself and leave Fearchar and Seonaid to the beds. The two instead piled on top of him, eliciting a bubble of laughter across their senses.
“You ready to see your bairns, Eoin?” Seonaid’s expression softened when the teasing stopped.
“More than ready.” The boys’ father sank into relaxation, opening his void.
Mirza’s chamber sat in the throws of sunset, bathed in golden glow. Pink halos dressed the edges of brass fixtures. “They will be here any time now, White Bird. You do pace so.” The black-haired giant bent over a series of documents at his desk.
Eoin pushed his own hair up, the weight of it giving him a headache. Pins put too much tension on his scalp and all he wanted to do was scream. You say that, Mirza, but I have not seen them in four months. You say they need tutoring and I give you half an ingot of trust. How am I to know they weren’t sold or kidnapped or murdered upon the road? Why must they be held in Isfahan?
“As I’ve explained multiple times, White Bird, they are perfectly safe with the rest of the children of the palace. All the boys are sent to Isfahan to learn to read and write through the scriptures. It is customary.” Mirza set a scroll aside and opened another.
It is keeping hostages. Eoin sank onto a stool in front of Mirza’s desk.
“My father would disapprove of that word.” Mirza dipped a metal nib into a peacock shaped inkwell.
Disapprove because it is accurate. Eoin jiggled his leg up and down to dispel a sense of urgency from his system.
“It is as we have practised for more than five decades, White Bird. They take those that would inherit my father’s throne and teach them the skills they will need in court.” Mirza set his writing equipment in their holder.
The court uses the children to threaten the outlying kingdoms so that they will not revolt and take over Isfahan. Flicking an irritated hand, Eoin ran across a raised piece of painful skin against his nail. The physician shoved the edge of his thumbnail under his teeth to chew off the tag.
“And it is the way it has been to keep the peace. My father has not betrayed the court, therefore nothing will befall your children.” Mirza sighed, stood, and walked around his desk. Regarding Eoin under dark brows, he snapped his thumb and forefinger. The physician stilled his jittery leg to glance up at the giant. Wariness crossed his eyes as he stood up. Mirza engulfed Eoin, squeezing tight, until the man relaxed.
“You worry too much, White Bird. Breathe for me. They will be here shortly and they will rather a calm father than a flustered physician.” Mirza found the spot at the base of Eoin’s skull that held too many tense knots. The physician lay his head on Mirza’s chest and closed his eyes, trying to do as he was told.
“But what if something happens to them between there and-”
A knock startled the two. Eoin stumbled back quickly and Mirza dropped his hands to find a nonchalant position.
A male voice echoed through the door. “Mirza? Niloofar’s children have arrived. I’ve had them placed in the physician’s rooms. Sarai is seeing to bedding for them.”
“He will be there shortly.” Mirza gave Eoin a broad grin and grabbed his hand to stall him from racing out the door. Putting up a finger, he had Eoin count the guard’s footsteps. Once sufficiently quiet, Mirza let go.
Eoin dashed from the Prince’s meeting quarters for his pharmacy and sleeping quarters.
“Dad!” Albin and Callum greeted him as he tore open the door and threw himself at them. Encompassing them in a bear hug, tears splashed from his eyes onto their bright white hair.
“I missed you so much. I’m so glad you’re safe.”
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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